A is for Alexie, Sherman.
Way back in the early 1990s, I read a book called The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I was blown away by this collection of short stories set on the Spokane Indian Reservation, a day's drive from my home, and a place I had never really thought about before. The blending of humor and pain pulled me right in.
Later that decade, a movie, Smoke Signals, was produced, based on the book. It made news because it was the first feature length movie that had a Native American writer, director, co-producer, AND the Indians were played by, you know, Indians, not Italians or white guys with good tans.
|Nineties Alexie, looking both very 90s and very American Indian Author|
Plus, it was a really good movie. Alexie did a super job adapting his stories into one cohesive narrative about two reluctant friends traveling from the Rez down to Arizona to pick up the remains of a man who was bad father to one and good father-figure to the other.
I haven't read as much Alexie as I would like. I read and enjoyed Flight, a time traveling yarn about a foster kid with a lot to learn. I started but couldn't continue to read Indian Killer, which begins with a baby being essentially stolen from his Indian mother and placed with a clueless white family. (It didn't help that I attempted to read this book about three weeks before traveling to adopt my own children.)
Then there's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is one of my all-time favorite books. It happens to be a young adult book, but it's not one of my favorite YA books--I said all time favorite, period. Did I say there was humor and pain in the first Alexie book I read? Magnify both of those 1000x, and you have some idea of the strength of this book. Illustrated with cartoons and drawings, written in the journal, this is Diary of a Wimpy Kid with teeth. And balls. And heart. And pretty much any other anatomical metaphor there is--guts, nerve, legs? You bet!
It's also been the most challenged/banned book in the United States for at least three years running. See, the main character, Junior, is a high school freshman. And Junior fantasizes about girls. Junior also masturbates. Junior also talks about his dad's alcoholism, the culture of violence he lives in, the ongoing racism that saturates his life, the ridiculously high number of funerals he's been to for such a young kid, and the reality of living in deep poverty in one of the wealthiest countries to ever exist--but I'm pretty sure it's the jerking off that gets him banned. I'm not sure if people actually think it's pornographic to talk about the facts of life, or if they actually believe their sons won't discover masturbation unless they read about it in a book, but either way--are you fucking kidding me?!?
Students in Idaho obtained 350 copies of the book to distribute in a park after their high school banned it--and Alexie himself has some pretty great things to say about the topic of book banning.
|2000s Alexie, looking HAWT. Sorry to continue my disturbing trend of objectifying the attractiveness of male authors. It's not just me though--at NCTE another teacher told me her students refer to Matt de la Peña as Matt de la Hottie.|
You can imagine my excitement when I heard that he is set to write a children's picture book. And oh my gosh, does it sound terrific. Coming so soon after another brilliant voice won the Newbery for his surprisingly sweet picture book, this book has a primed audience waiting for it.
Thinking about intersectionality and white privilege, I know I have a lot to learn about all sorts of lives that are not like mine. Some of that comes from actual experience, from going out of my comfort zone and seeking out people who aren't just like me. But the world is so big (and I am so shy), and this is where literature comes in. Alexie makes me examine issues that I didn't even know existed, and he makes me question things I thought I knew about my region and my history. He also transcends this, because just as much as he's an Indian, he's a writer, a poet, a story teller.
|Current Alexie, looking both professorial and ready to take on the world with humor and nerve.|
The day after I wrote this post, I read on My Head is Full of Books that Pierce County (just south of Seattle's King County) has chosen Alexie's books for their annual county-wide "everybody reads" program. I'm pondering a trip north to see him speak at the closing event.